Kayaking: Exploring Sungei Khatib Bongsu

My company gave us Friday the 13th off, as one of the 6 “wellness” days they’d designated for the remainder of the year, as a response to the burnout some of us was feeling from the extended global lockdown courtesy of Covid-19. We made the most of it – 8 of us got together to do a clean up paddle of Sungei Khatib Bongsu with Kayakasia.

According to our guide Ling, the Khatib Bongsu mangrove is a very special place, not least because it, along with Palau Ubin, is one of the remaining untouched mangrove forests in Singapore. Today, mangrove forests make up just 0.5% of the total land mass area in Singapore, down from 13% in the 1820s. Sungei Khatib Bongsu and its maze of estuarine channels is one of the last few un-dammed rivers in Singapore, and the only way to explore it is by kayak. The government though, has announced plans to develop the area into a nature park, ala Sungei Buloh. Having experienced the quiet, unspoiled beauty of it yesterday, I agree with Ling and the Kayakasia crew that it’ll be very sad and a real pity if that means cleared trees, transformed habitats and built-up board walks for crowds to throng through. I don’t want a “natural landscape design”. I just want natural!

We assembled bright and early on the grassy banks on the Yishun canal between the intersection of Yishun Ave 8 and 9
We waited patiently in an orderly line to clamber aboard our 2-man inflatable kayaks

Our journey began immediately right off the canal. After some quick paddling techniques tips for those of us new to kayaking, Ling steered us down a narrow waterway. The drone of motorcars disappeared, replaced by the more melodic chirping of crickets and calls of the dozens of bright blue kingfishers that darted about us. Though some had initially been fighting off yawns from their early morning alarms, everyone had now perked up and awed by the lush greenery, a markedly different world from what we were used to.

Back in the 70s, prawn farms dotted the area. We could still see remnants: the half rotted stakes and collapsed sluiced gates that we squeezed past as we navigated the lush labyrinth of waterways. Otherwise, the only other signs of inhabitation now were the plastic bottles and styrofoam bits that the tide brought in. 😦

After a week of rain, we were really lucky to have a such a gorgeous morning to be paddling. The early morning light filtered through the dense canopy, lending a sparkly and other-worldly feel

I’ve paddled the mangrove rivers of Pulau Ubin at least a dozen times already this year, but this mangrove forest at Khatib Bongsu is really something else! Kayakasia bills this as one of the most beautiful river trails in Singapore, and I have to agree. We paddled past gigantic fig trees, traversed in and around a mix of different flooded forests. They seemed oversized compared to the more delicate habitats on Palau Ubin.

Ling knows this area by heart now, having led hundreds of tours here through her 6.5 years with Kayakasia, but for the rest of us, our sense of direction were completely out of whack. I had absolutely no idea where we were, for she’d randomly direct us off a narrow but free waterway into a thicket of trees, or placidly slink under a mess of branches. We were not nearly as graceful or deft with our paddles, and the mangrove was often pierced with shrieks and laughter as people smacked themselves in the face with the low hanging branches as they tried to extricate their kayaks from exposed roots that seemed to loom up suddenly in the middle of nowhere.

But that’s the beauty of kayaking in the mangrove forests. There were literally no paths to follow. We could literally chart our own journey.

After 3.5 hours exploring the nooks and crannies of the mangroves, Ling led us out to the coast. We reluctantly left behind the glassy flat waters and the blissful shade of the trees and promptly met with chop and wake from the half dozen wakeboarding boats gunning down the river. It was a bit of a rude shock to the group, for now they also had to contend with a head on current and wind as they re-adjusted to coastal kayaking. After the leisurely paddle of the mangroves, we had to work against the current to paddle the 4km to our ending point at Sembawang Park. We did have a bit of a break midway through though, stopping at a tiny sandy beach (sadly littered with bits of plastic and other detritus the tides left behind) for a breather and late morning tea of curry puffs and fruits.

Overall, a magical experience, and a great team bonding to boot! And I will say this again: for all the grief about not being able to travel, I am grateful that this lockdown has enabled me to more fully explore where I call home. We may not boast of stunning vistas and soaring mountains, but I’ve a newfound appreciation of our mangrove ecosystem.

Our rough route: Sungei Khatib Bongsu to Sembawang
Our rough route: Sungei Khatib Bongsu to Sembawang Park

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